UK and Canadian universities lead world on sustainability

Engagement by students and staff bolstered by mandates from governments cited as key ingredients for success in THE University Impact Rankings tables

May 21, 2019
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Universities in the UK are the most environmentally sustainable in the world, while those in Canada are doing the most to tackle climate change, according to data from Times Higher Education.

The University of British Columbia (UBC) topped the THE University Impact Rankings table on “climate action”. The table, published last month, measures institutions’ research on climate change, their use of energy and their preparations for dealing with the consequences of climate change.

Laval University in Quebec came fourth, while the University of Waterloo in Ontario was fifth.

As a result, universities in Canada received the highest average score in the table, based on the top institutions (84.1 out of 100), coming ahead of Australia (72.1) and Russia (71.2).

Metrics included the amount of renewable and low-carbon energy used by institutions and evidence that the university provides local education on the impact of climate change and has an institutional climate action plan.

Meanwhile, the UK was the top national performer in the THE University Impact Rankings table on “responsible consumption and production”, receiving an average score of 75.3 out of 100, pipping Finland (74.4) and Canada (73.1).

Leaders on global concerns


While University College Cork in the Republic of Ireland topped the table, which measured universities’ research on responsible consumption and their approach to the sustainable use of resources, Newcastle University and the University of Dundee were in second and third place, respectively.

Metrics include the proportion of waste that is recycled along with evidence that the university publishes a sustainability report and has policies on the ethical sourcing of goods and minimising the use of plastics.

The country analyses were based on the top 100 of both rankings and excluded nations with fewer than three universities ranked in the top 100.

Joanna Newman, chief executive and secretary general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, said that the Commonwealth “represents many countries that are on the front line of climate change; 31 of its 53 member nations are small states”, which helped to explain why Canada, the UK and Australia were such strong performers.

“Environmental sustainability has been prominent on the Commonwealth’s agenda for decades,” she added. “Universities in the Commonwealth are committed to developing home-grown solutions as well as collaborating internationally to address the environmental concerns we all face.”

Janet Haddock-Fraser, chair in sustainability and leadership at Manchester Metropolitan University and chair of trustees for EAUC, an alliance for sustainability leadership in education, said that the UK’s success in the responsible consumption and production table was “unsurprising”.

“Universities and colleges in the UK have been particularly proactive in the areas this [ranking] covers, from ensuring that their procurement and supply chain is ethical, to successful recycling initiatives, researching plastic alternatives and divesting from fossil fuels,” she said.

“Although we are seeing more regulation and reporting requirements here in the UK in this area, it forms part of wider sustainability engagement by institutions, not least by students and staff, and is becoming increasingly prioritised at all levels. We hope to see this effect trickle through into other Sustainable Development Goals as the government recognises the necessity for regulation and legislation on sustainability issues.”

Julie Sanders, deputy vice-chancellor of Newcastle University, said that last year the institution became one of the first universities to officially sign the UK government’s Emissions Reduction Pledge, which aims to achieve a 57 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2032 and an 80 per cent reduction by 2050.

The university was also “on track” to achieve its aim of divesting from fossil fuels and was working to “develop a pathway to net-zero carbon emissions”, she said. As a proportion of total holdings, Newcastle’s investment in the oil and gas sector shrank by half to 4.4 per cent between September 2017 and October 2018.

“The criteria here mainly look for policies to be in place, which is likely to be how we score well, having a mature environmental management system that has been in place for 10 years,” said Hannah Owens, sustainability manager at Newcastle.

Meanwhile, on Canada, Marcia McKenzie, director of the University of Saskatchewan’s Sustainability and Education Policy Network, which last year carried out a census of all 220 accredited post-secondary institutions in Canada on their engagement with sustainability initiatives, said that “British Columbia and Quebec are leading climate and sustainability action in higher education globally”.

She said this was partly because of “strong provincial mandates in these areas, such as requirements for institutions to have climate action plans, as well as notable internal leadership at institutions such as UBC and Laval from administration, faculty and students”.

For example, UBC provides all undergraduate students with access to sustainability courses related to their area of study, while in 2017 Laval became the first university in Canada to divest from fossil fuels, Professor McKenzie said.

“These two universities both have climate- and sustainability-specific policies, include a sustainability mandate through their overall university strategic plans, have dedicated staff focused on climate and sustainability action, and are engaged in annual assessments of their progress,” she added.

A UBC spokesman said that despite increasing both building space and student enrolment, the institution had achieved a 34 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions “from a 2007 baseline” and a 50 per cent reduction in campus water consumption since 1999.

This was attributed to the completion of a C$90 million (£52 million) hot water district energy system and the university’s Bioenergy Research and Demonstration Facility, which uses clean wood waste to generate energy for 25 per cent of campus heating and hot water needs.

John Metras, UBC’s associate vice-president (facilities), said: “We’re very fortunate at UBC to have a committed campus community and access to innovative sustainability research and infrastructure, the combination of which is allowing the university to take big strides in reducing its footprint.”

The universities driving forward the creation of sustainable cities

Lesser-known universities in South Korea and Turkey are among the strongest performers when it comes to contributing to the sustainability of their cities and communities, according to the latest Times Higher Education data.

Kyung Hee University in South Korea, which is ranked in the 351-400 band of the THE World University Rankings 2019, topped the THE University Impact Rankings for “sustainable cities and communities”.

New Zealand’s Auckland University of Technology was second, Canada’s University of British Columbia was third and Turkey’s Abdullah Gül University was fourth.

The ranking measures universities’ research on sustainability, their role as custodians of arts and heritage (for example, whether they provide public access to significant campus buildings, libraries and museums) and their internal approaches to sustainability (such as providing affordable housing for students and staff and giving pedestrians priority on campus).

A spokesman at Kyung Hee said that the institution has been “active in its open space and green space policies”, while its four arts colleges and three museums mean that it is also “fostering arts and heritage experience in the local community”.

Meanwhile, in recent years, Kyung Hee has been “throwing energy into research on global climate change, particulate pollution, food and energy to cope with global challenges and to respond to environmental change in the future”, he said.

This year, the humanities college launched a new mandatory course called “The World and Global Citizenship”, which covers issues including climate change, the ecosystem and environmental issues, war and inequality, he added.

Emeric Abrignani, director of Abdullah Gül’s international office, said that the institution had been established eight years ago as a national project “in response to current global challenges and changes”, including sustainability.

“AGU places great emphasis on sustainable practices such as an eco-friendly commute”, giving priority to pedestrians and cyclists on campus, and organising and funding shared transport for staff, he said.

The university also provides affordable accommodation to its students and staff, with “prices set at the minimum required to cover the operating costs”, he added.

Thomas Neitzert, chairman of Auckland University of Technology’s sustainability task force, said that the institution was “very active in interdisciplinary research related to schools, neighbourhood environment, noise pollution and transport”.

“AUT also sponsors various organisations including the Auckland Art Gallery…and is a co-investor in the city’s newest theatre, the ASB Waterfront Theatre,” he said.


Print headline: In green race, UK and Canada set global pace

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